Neil Gaiman, Stardust (Avon, 1998)

It has been a l-o-n-g time since a book has so thoroughly transported me back to the world I used to live in as a child. That world, at its best, contained lots of fairy tales and magic, where anything could happen ... and usually did.

In this case, it was Neil Gaiman's newest book, Stardust that accomplished what so many other books have failed to do for me over the years. It touched places in my soul I had forgotten were there.

Stardust is the story of one Tristran Thorn; half-mortal, half-Faerie. Raised by his mortal father and his wife along with his half-sister in the sleepy English village of Wall, the adolescent Tristran is eager to win the heart of his true love, Victoria Forrester. Since she doesn't love him and hopes to dissuade his attentions, she tells him she will be his if he captures and brings back a falling star that she has seen fall out of the sky, a task she clearly thinks is impossible.

Wall, the village, gets its name from the stone wall which separates what most of us know as the "real" world from the land of Faerie. A person-sized hole in the wall is zealously guarded by the town's inhabitants 24 hours a day, every day, to prevent either the villagers venturing into Faerie, or the denizens of Faerie leaving in the opposite direction. The only exception to this strict prohibition takes place once every nine years, when a market fair is held in Faerie, and the villagers are permitted to cross over into Faerie and sample the marvelous and incredible wares for sale at that time.

It is during one such fair that Dunstan, Tristran's father, and his Faerie mother, who is under an enchantment, meet and conceive him, and another such fair (years later) which sees Tristran off on his quest.

Tristran finds his fallen star in the form of a young injured woman, but he finds transporting her back to Wall a much harder task than he originally imagined. First of all, she doesn't want to come willingly. Second, his plans are thwarted at various turns by other inhabitants of Faerie, for their own much less innocent purposes. Since I don't want to ruin this book by giving away too much of the plot, you'll have to read it to find out the details.

Our hero discovers, as have many before him, that often the thing one desires above all else is not the thing that will assure permanent happiness in life, and that his real happiness was right under his nose, all the time.

Gaiman's tale has all the classic elements of fairy tales: good vs. evil, quests, magic, with a hefty dose of charms and spells thrown in for good measure.

What sets his book apart from many other such tales is his use of language, which is inventive and delights all the senses. That he is trained as an artist is evident by the visual descriptiveness of his words. If he is not a musician, then he ought to be. One example of the musicality of his language is in his description of a glass flower: "It chinkled and sang as he held it." Now, "chinkled" isn't in any dictionary I have access to, but I knew exactly how it sounded after reading that sentence.

There seem to be no hidden meanings in this book. It is not hard work to read it, and it can be shared by adults and children alike (although a few explicit sexual encounters might need to be expurgated or abridged if one is reading to the very young). At one point, I found myself reading it out loud just for the sheer enjoyment of hearing the words spoken, not sure my dogs (the only audience at the time) were paying attention. I wished that my daughter, now a college student (and a Gaiman fan too!) was with me and that we could enjoy it together as a read-aloud like those we shared so many times while she was growing up.

For me this book was a delight from start to finish, and closing the cover at the end engendered that relatively rare, bittersweet feeling experienced by readers who have truly become a temporary part of the world so skilfully created by the author, and who are loathe to depart when the words have ceased.

This book gets my enthusiastic recommendation as a "Best Of" in its genre.

[Debbie Skolnik]